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Environment Council (9 March 2012)

Volume 542: debated on Tuesday 20 March 2012

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and I represented the UK at the Environment Council in Brussels on 9 March. Stewart Stevenson, Scottish Minister for Environment and Climate Change; John Griffiths, Welsh Minister for Environment and Sustainable Development; and Alex Attwood, Northern Irish Minister of the Environment, also joined the delegation.

The day was divided into climate change items before lunch and environment items from the lunchtime discussion onwards.

The Council adopted conclusions on follow up to the 17th session of the conference of the parties to the United Nations framework convention on climate change and the 7th session of the meeting of the parties to the Kyoto protocol in Durban. The text sets out the EU position on the outcome of this conference, strongly welcoming the positive outcomes which further implement the Cancun agreements, pave the way for immediate and concrete actions on the ground and lay a solid foundation through the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. The text also looks ahead to the next conference, C0P18 in Doha, signalling the EU priorities for this conference, in particular, progress on mitigation and on agreement of a new, single, legally binding treaty applicable to all. Through these conclusions the EU and its member states confirmed that they would submit information on a EU ‘QELRO’ (the target under the Kyoto protocol) by 1 May 2012.

Unfortunately the Council was unable to adopt conclusions on the 2050 low carbon road map. For the second time, Poland vetoed the conclusions. However, 26 member states were able to sign up to presidency conclusions, which recognised that the cost effective trajectory for EU emission reductions to 2050 passed through domestic milestones of minus 40% in 2030 and minus 60% in 2040. Those 26 member states also called on the Commission to present timely and cost effective policy proposals to deliver the emissions reductions in the road map.

The environment half of the day began with a lunchtime discussion on preparations for the Rio+20 conference in June, at which Ministers debated the approach that the EU and member states should take, especially regarding the sustainable development goals (SDGs). After the discussion, Ministers moved back to the Council chamber to adopt non-legislative Council conclusions under the title Rio+20: Pathways to a sustainable future. Ministers stressed their commitment to playing an active role, with a view to contributing to an ambitious outcome in Rio. The Council welcomed the proposal on SDGs as it could contribute to a more focused and coherent action towards sustainable development and confirmed the willingness of the EU and its member states to engage in further discussion on this topic.

Ministers then considered the legislative proposal on restricting or prohibiting the cultivation of genetically modified organisms. The presidency pushed hard for political agreement on their compromise text but was ultimately unsuccessful in securing the necessary support as it was opposed by France, Germany, Spain, Ireland, Belgium, Slovakia and the UK. I made it clear that the UK Government could not accept the presidency text because we still had fundamental concerns about the component of the proposal which would provide for unilateral bans of GM crops. I explained that the UK Government were keen to pursue a positive and workable outcome in order to improve the functioning of the EU authorisation system in a way that is legally secure. The presidency concluded discussions by saying it would consider next steps.

For the final substantive item of the day, the presidency held a legislative orientation debate on LIFE, the sole direct funding instrument for environment and climate change in the EU budget. Given the late hour, the UK and other member states who intervened mainly limited themselves to the questions posed by the presidency on geographical balance and simplification. On geographical balance we asserted that national allocations should be reinstated for all projects, and supported the extension of LIFE to the EU’s overseas countries and territories. Regarding simplification, we supported the presidency’s approach of reinstating the eligibility of permanent staff costs and VAT, but stressed that this should be balanced by a reduction in the co-financing rate. The UK also noted the relevance to LIFE of the wider negotiations on the multi-annual financial framework and the need for the LIFE programme budget to be in line with the UK view on the overall EU budget.